Associate Professor of Political Science Alison McQueen has been named the new faculty director of the Center’s Undergraduate Honors Program. The rigorous program offers students the opportunity to write a senior honors thesis on topics in applied ethics. McQueen’s three-year appointment began September 1, 2020.
“We’re so excited to welcome Alison to the leadership of the Honors Program and to the Center,” says Rob Reich, faculty director of the Center for Ethics in Society. “Her exceptional scholarly work on the history of modern political thought is matched by her distinction in the classroom as a teacher and mentor of students.”
When McQueen arrived at Stanford in 2011, she didn’t necessarily recognize her work as a form of ethical inquiry. Her research focuses on early modern political theory and the history of International Relations thought. Soon after discovering the Center for Ethics in Society, she realized the questions raised by her work are, in fact, ethical queries.
“What drew me in was the broad tent for what ethical research could look like,” McQueen says. “I think that speaks to something really important about the [Honors] Program and [the Center for] Ethics in Society.”
In her new role, McQueen will spearhead the Honors Program which allows students in any major to join a tight-knit interdisciplinary community supported by core courses, a Junior Honors Seminar, electives pertaining to their chosen topic, and faculty and postdoctoral fellows dedicated to mentoring them throughout the challenging process of writing a senior thesis.
McQueen credits the success of the program to the outgoing director Brent Sockness. The current structure provides students with a well-marked roadmap and offers meaningful checkpoints to keep students motivated and on track to succeed.
Another attractive feature of the program, McQueen says, is the program’s focus on ethical inquiry to address practical problems. Students apply moral reasoning to some of the most pressing issues of our time, including topics such as the ethical implications of genetic engineering, the right to privacy in the information age, the just distribution of health care, and the nature of gender equality.
As a political scientist, McQueen’s expertise foregrounds the importance of empirical data in well-founded ethical reasoning around practical issues. While most social issues cannot be resolved through empirical research alone, she argues that empirical information is essential to making a moral determination. Take, for example, ethical queries raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we think of who gets the vaccine first, there are some empirical questions we want to know, including the production capacity. That's important to know,” she says. “Now, the question of how we ought to prioritize it is ultimately a moral one.”
The current state of the world certainly raises a vast array of ethical conundrums and students pursuing an Ethics in Society honors thesis are encouraged to tackle these tough ethical questions. McQueen hopes the Honors Program will continue to attract students from philosophy, political science, literature and STEM, as well as other disciplines across the university.
Throughout McQueen’s Stanford career, she has been an active contributor to the Center’s vibrant intellectual community.
“I’ve known Alison since she first arrived at Stanford and I’m very much looking forward to working with her in this new capacity,” says Executive Director Joan Berry. “She will no doubt build on what Brent created and the students will surely benefit from her dedication to teaching and her enthusiasm for rigorous ethical inquiry.”